When Christ is Not the Center

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ART:  Blind Minotaur Led by a Little Girl at Night by Pablo Picasso, 1934 [Philadelphia Museum of Art]

By , The Catholic Thing, July 19, 2017

Randall Smith

For all its good intentions, the most dangerous aspect of liberal progressivism, as I suggested in an earlier column, is its presumption that it occupies a position of superior rationality from which it can fairly and dispassionately judge other philosophies and religious traditions. On this view, liberal progressivism is not one position among many, but simply rationality itself. Its views are simply those that rationality, working itself out through history, has caused enlightened, intellectual people to hold.

It’s not that other views have nothing to teach such enlightened men and women; it’s merely that whatever those other views may have to teach – and liberal progressives are pleased to say they’re open to all traditions, whether Native American, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, African Tribal, or Inuit – in the end, all of it must be submitted to the standards and value-judgments of modern liberal progressivism. Religions are “good” to the extent that they are in accord with the goals of modern liberal progressivism – “bad,” “behind the times,” and “narrow-minded” when they are not.

Self-styled “open minded” liberal progressives who boast, “I am open to all religions,” seem unaware that in “being open to all,” they have separated themselves from the thing that unites all the religions they say they’re open to: complete devotion to a particular religious tradition, one that gives its adherents meaning.

Modern liberal progressives assume that they, as rational, autonomous individuals, make meaning. Dedicated religious believers base their lives on the conviction that they receive a meaning they themselves did not make. A person who is “open to all religions and philosophies” has closed himself off from all of them, for what he lacks is what actual believers in such traditions possess: dedication to a particular way of life.

Modern liberal progressives regard this as the price they must pay to be open and enlightened – they can’t allow themselves to be “narrow” in the way dedicated Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus are. But they should at least admit that they are no more “open” than anyone else; that they pick-and-choose from other religious traditions just those things – and only those things – that fit their particular aims and world view, which is precisely what they accuse others of doing.

I can’t speak in defense of other religious or philosophical traditions here, but let me ask: Is Christianity “narrow” where modern liberal progressivism is “open” and “understanding”?

A friend suggested recently that, “when Christ is the center of the university, everything else remains relevant.” As the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) makes clear, because Christians believe the Word of God became incarnate, “nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

When Jesus is the center, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, and Galileo are all relevant, along with Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and Catherine of Siena. When Darwin, Marx, Freud, or Nietzsche become the driving force, then “the center cannot hold” and other points-of-view are either subsumed into the reigning ideology or spun off into disparate “departments” where professors speak their own language with their own students, but never to anyone else. And you can forget about reading Athanasius, Basil, Gregory, or any of the others, not to mention that dangerous book, the Bible.Because Christians believe Christ is co-eternal with the Father, and is the source of all being and truth, they are (or should be) committed to the notion that all existence and truth, whatever its source, is relevant to them. This is why they created “universities,” where all the disciplines and all the approaches to truth, goodness, and beauty could be brought together.

Modern liberal progressivism has a hard time with classical wisdom that says “Know Thyself.” It has a hard time seeing itself as the latest in a long string of modern “ideologies,” none of which has an especially good record for openness to or understanding of differences and diversity, all of which sold themselves as utterly “rational,” “the direction history was moving,” and “undeniably good for humanity if people would just cooperate and do what we say.”

Catholics, by comparison, have a pretty good record when it comes to unity-in-diversity, diversity-in-unity: a unity that does not stifle diversity and a diversity that does not tear apart an essential unity. There are French Catholics, German Catholics, Argentinian Catholics, Ukrainian Catholics, African Catholics, Catholics in New York, and Catholics on farms in Iowa. The Catholic Church includes Benedictines, Carthusians, Carmelites, Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, and hundreds of others, all very different, all united by one faith.

Want to learn classical Greek or Latin? Have a serious interest in Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca? Want to read the works of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, study modern biology, read the poetry of Homer and Dante, and the novels of Jane Austin and Henry James? Want something more from your education than to be programmed with the current cultural zeitgeist and to be prepared to do your part in the “new global economy”? If so, you’ll probably have to go to a Catholic liberal arts university — places where “nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.” If you can find one.

When Christ is no longer at the center, dedication to the liberal arts soon fades; when disputes over the “core curriculum” or “general education” requirements arise, support for the liberal arts generally parallels support for the Catholic character of the institution. Liberal progressivism, as it turns out, is not a big supporter of the liberal arts. Too many unenlightened viewpoints, I suppose.

There appear to be no good reasons why departments in classics, great literature, logic, or the history of philosophy should depend for their continued existence on bishops, religious superiors, and university administrators holding fast to their faith in the value of a Christian liberal arts education. It just turns out that way.


Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.